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He's So Good at Playing Bad

Date: Feb 21, 2018
Veteran actor Zach Grenier tackles an ethically compromised politician in Kings


The last time Zach Grenier appeared at the Public Theater, he played Vice President Dick Cheney in David Hare's Stuff Happens in 2006. Now he's back on the same stage portraying another scheming politician: a fictional Texas senator in Sarah Burgess's Kings.

In between the two productions, Grenier spent seven years on the hit CBS drama The Good Wife as ruthless Chicago divorce lawyer David Lee. All three characters have complicated intentions and could be construed as borderline bad guys, yet Grenier embraces his type as an actor. "When you look a certain way, you will be cast a certain way," he says with a laugh. Speaking by phone, Grenier is jovial, thrilled to be working on a new play again, especially with a cast that features Gillian Jacobs, Eisa Davis, and Aya Cash, and director Thomas Kail (of Hamilton fame), whom he can't stop gushing about.

Grenier explains that while he was working on Kings, he wanted to make his senator -- who has lobbyists in his back pocket -- more sympathetic. But he reached a point where he needed to give way to the character. "I wanted to make him the best guy I could possibly make him given the situation, and that worked for 90 percent of the rehearsal process," Grenier says. "Then I got to the point where I had to move along and pay a little more attention to the play. I had to say goodbye to aspects of him that, if I were to continue, would have made me an apologist for the character."

Grenier's character, Sen. John McDowell, is running for reelection and facing an opponent staunchly opposed to backdoor deals and anonymous donations. As the senator struggles to gain ground in the polls and with the people, he realizes that his relationships to Washington insiders, namely lobbyists in this instance, are what have guided him and what might bring him down.


To prepare for the role, Grenier looked to real-life politicians, and he spent a lot of time thinking about South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. "He has an appearance of concern -- and I think there really is a concern -- and then he does all these terrible things in terms of policy," he says. "That person that's so caught up in that soup in D.C. and the power structure and the lobbying structure that he's always underwater with these issues. Once in a while, he pops up, and things become completely outrageous."

For both Stuff Happens and Kings, the theatre was transformed into an alley configuration, with audience members on two sides of the stage for a town-hall setting. The arrangement makes one of the play's final scenes feel like a political gathering, which calls to mind the similarities between performing and politics. "I had a sinking feeling in my stomach after I read the script because I knew this really happens and this really is an aspect of the way our government works," Grenier says. "If you think about it, it's a bit devastating, but that didn't stop me from taking the role."

Grenier got his start as an actor doing theatre, and in the '80s he became a member of Ensemble Studio Theatre, performing new plays by young writers. "When nobody wanted to hire me for anything else that's what I was doing," he recalls. Now that he's gone on to a successful career in television and on Broadway (he earned a Tony nomination for 33 Variations), he's thrilled to be back downtown, doing what he loves best.

"It's sort of a lifeblood for me, and some of it has to do with the more complex roles that they would give me in theatre that I wasn't getting in television as much," Grenier says. "An actor is an interpretative artist, we create our sense of play. Actually being in on the groundwork of helping a playwright improve the event is something that's always so gratifying."


Follow Suzy Evans at @suzyeevans. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Top image: Aya Cash and Zach Grenier in Kings. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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